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What Happens When You Lie by Telling the Truth?

There are many ways to mislead others. How do they differ?

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We mislead other people for many reasons. We may want to protect their feelings. We may want them to do something that they would not ordinarily do. And sometimes we are hiding information that might influence their opinions.

There are also a variety of strategies for misleading other people. The most straightforward kind is a lie of commission—telling someone something that is untrue. In cases of misleading by omission, someone gets a mistaken impression, and we simply don’t correct it.

A fascinating, less-discussed kind of deception is known as the palter, in which you say something that is true with the intent to deceive. Imagine you were trying to sell a car that has been in and out of the repair shop over the past few months for engine trouble. If a potential buyer asks you, “Is the engine OK?” and you answer, “It started up just fine this morning,” you are making a statement that is true, but you are misleading the potential buyer about the true state of the engine.

A fascinating paper by Todd Rogers, Richard Zeckhauser, Francesca Gino, Maurice Schweitzer, and Michael Norton in the March 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explores the use and influence of palters in negotiation. The researchers first report two pilot studies. One presents a car-buying scenario like the one I just described and demonstrates that people are good at distinguishing among lies of commission, lies of omission, and palters. A second asked experienced negotiators about things they do routinely when negotiating. Over half of the negotiators admitted to lying by omission and to paltering, but only about 20 percent claimed that they made lies of commission. These negotiators also felt that lies of omission and palters were more ethical than lies of commission.

An experiment with vignettes looked at whether people were more willing to palter than to lie explicitly. Participants were asked to imagine they were selling a car that had engine trouble. The buyer asked whether the car had engine trouble. Participants were told that they would receive a $1 bonus payment if they sold the car, and they were told that if they told the truth, they had a 30-percent chance of selling the car.

Some participants were given the option to palter by answering that the car started up the previous week in freezing weather. These participants were told that if they chose to palter rather than tell the truth, they would have a 60 percent chance of selling the car.

Another group of participants were given the option to lie explicitly by answering that the car had no engine trouble. These participants were told that if they lied, they would have an 80 percent chance of selling the car.

Participants given the option to palter did so 71 percent of the time, while those given the option to lie did so only 55 percent of the time. So, even though lying gave them a greater chance of receiving the bonus, people were less likely to decide to do it.

Participants also rated how ethical their response was, and of participants who chose to mislead, those who chose to palter rated their behavior as more ethical than those who chose to lie explicitly.

The researchers replicated this study in a face-to-face negotiation. Of interest in this study was that when people found out that their partner had paltered, they rated this to be just as unethical as if their partner had explicitly lied.

Across several other studies, the researchers demonstrate that people who mislead someone else believe their behavior to be more ethical when they palter than when they lie. However, people who are misled see the other person’s behavior as equally unethical whether they lied explicitly or paltered.

Why is there this difference?

It appears that people evaluate the ethics of an action differently depending on how they are affected by it. People who palter focus on the fact that they made a statement that was true. So, they compare their action to a lie of commission. People who are misled, however, focus on the fact that the other person did something to deliberately mislead them. These people are less interested in the fact that the statement was technically true because the intent of the statement was to mislead.

This work suggests that paltering is a dangerous game. In the moment, it can help to get you what you want, because you can leave other individuals without critical information they might need to make a choice. In the long run, however, it can undermine other people’s trust in the things that you say.

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Rogers, T., Zeckhauser, R., Gino, F., Schweitzer, M.E., & Norton, M.I. (2017). Artful paltering: The risks and rewards of using truthful statements to mislead others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(3), 456-473.

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